We revisit the Dilip Kumar-starrer, which was a lavish experiment with colour, on its 70th anniversary.
Mehboob Khan’s Aan (1952): A visual spectacle that captured the imagination of the West
New Delhi - 04 Jul 2022 15:05 IST
Although Mehboob Khan is best known for his definitive film Mother India (1957), it was his action-adventure extravaganza Aan (1952) that brought him international acclaim.
The first Indian film to be shot in 16 mm Gevacolor and blown up in Technicolor, Aan starred Dilip Kumar, Nimmi and Premnath and marked the debut of Nadira, “a new find”, as described in the film’s booklet. Based on a story by RS Choudhury with dialogues by Ali Raza, the film’s music was by Naushad and lyrics by Shakeel Badayuni.
Aan is a story that takes us to the splendour of a king’s palace, with the opening score itself indicating the adventure that will unfold. Set in a mythical kingdom, the benevolent ruler (Murad) has a younger brother Shamsher Singh (Premnath) and a sister Rajshree (Nadira). A Rajput villager, Jai (Dilip Kumar), comes to the king’s palace and amidst a day of games, proves his mettle in sword fighting against Shamsher Singh and horsemanship by taming Rajshree’s unruly horse. Jai falls in love with the princess but she is too haughty to acknowledge the skill of a commoner. Meanwhile, a village girl Mangala (Nimmi) is in love with Jai.
The maharaja declares that instead of choosing a successor, he wishes to hand over the reins of power to the populace, effectively making it a democracy. Shamsher’s hopes are dashed and he plots to kill his brother. Unleashing his reign of terror upon the people, he also gets Mangala kidnapped. On the other hand, Jai strives to make Rajshree acknowledge his feelings for her.
The central theme of the film is that of class conflict, as Jai represents the peasants, who till the land and provide for the rich, while the wealthy, epitomized by Shamsher Singh and Rajshree, only think of the poor as irritating ants to be crushed along the way. Both Jai and Mangala robustly revolt against these class distinctions and in the taming of the ‘shrew’ Rajshree, lies the victory for the masses, who make her realize her mistake.
Mounted as a lavish spectacle, the film marked a significant break for Dilip Kumar as a swashbuckling action hero, a far cry from the brooding romantic that he had essayed in his earlier films.
Speaking about the move in a Filmfare interview, Saira Banu described his move as a tough act, which he [Kumar] pulled off without a trace of self-consciousness. "Against his basic nature, he became an extrovert. The gamble paid off. Even the great names of world cinema like Alexander Korda and Orson Welles, as well as Technicolor inventors, admired the technical excellence of the magnum opus,” she said.
His co-star Nimmi was completely floored by the star’s magnetic personality as well. In a Filmfare interview, she recalled an incident on the sets of the film. “Once we were shooting a scene for Aan where I, seated on a horse, had to throw a sword to Dilip Saab. The tip of the sword hurt him. I was apologetic. But in his poetic style, he said, ‘Hum sochenge zindagi mein ek chot aur khayee (I’ll consider it as yet another wound in life)’. On hearing this, any girl would have been floored”, she said, extolling his stupendous talent.
However, in many ways, it is Nadira, who steals the show. Appearing as a tough, arrogant princess with a permanently arched eyebrow, she seems like she can conquer the world all by herself. Wearing breeches and western clothes in the beginning, she starts wearing feminine attire and sarees once romance blooms and she begins to soften her stance. Incredibly, the actress revealed that much of what she did in the film, was absolutely new to her, “I did everything for the first time in Aan — riding a horse, driving a Mercedes, swimming, getting my eyelashes burned in a fire sequence — just name it and I did it.”
With several stunts on horses and lions, magnificent dance sequences, rich costumes and lavish sets — there is a fabulous crocodile mouth-shaped door, which deserves special mention, Aan is a sensory overload undoubtedly inspired by Hollywood films. However, the film was undeniably Khan’s masterpiece which mesmerized all those who watched it. Viewing it in contemporary times too, the sheer scale, grandeur and impeccable detailing of the film are stunning, although the film veers towards the ‘exotic’ India motif, weaving in fantastical elements that, no doubt, appealed to an international audience.
Although the film did not do well at the box office in the country, it was widely distributed in the West, becoming the first film to be released commercially in the UK and Europe. Dubbed in various languages, including Tamil and French, it was released as The Savage Princess in the United Kingdom and the US, and later as Mangala Fille des Indes (Mangala, Daughter Of India) in France, finding overwhelming success amongst the audiences. Suresh Kohli writes that when the film was released at the Rialto Cinema in London, it ran for 12 consecutive weeks and drew unprecedented crowds.
Heaping praises on Khan for his film, the legendary filmmaker Cecil B DeMille, with whom Khan is frequently compared, wrote a letter to Khan in October 1952 which read, “Dear Mr Khan, Thank you for showing me your recent picture, Aan. I found it an important piece of work, not only because I enjoyed it, but also because it shows the tremendous potential of Indian motion pictures for securing world markets. I believe it is quite possible to make pictures in your great country which will be understood by all nations without sacrificing the cultures and customs of India. India has always held great fascination for us, and we all look forward to the day when you will be regular contributors to our screen fare with many fine stories bringing us the romance and magic of India.”
It is significant that the film was released the year when the first International Film Festival was held in Bombay, heralding perhaps, a time when Indian cinema was to capture the imagination of the world.